Author’s note: This is the second of two articles. Part 1 recounts Newbie surprises when my wife Deborah and I first moved to Cuenca in 2010. Part 2 enumerates Good, Bad and Ugly surprises experienced since then. Bear in mind, all you Cuenca Old Timers, Newbies and Wannabees, that surprises are subjective, so your perceptions may well differ from mine. Just saying…
By Gil Castle
“Mañana” used to mean “not today”, but in recent years punctuality has become more the norm. In 2010, for example, a major Internet provider said an installer would come to our home on a Thursday afternoon; no one showed up until the following Sunday morning when (pretty darn early) three technicians suddenly appeared. In contrast, this year we’ve had four occasions for company technicians to work on Internet, television and natural gas connectivity issues; in every case, the technicians arrived within a promised two-hour window on the specified day, and even called us when they were heading our way. (Bonus Points: All the technicians have been competent and courteous.)
More and more, there’s less and less of what we can’t get here. Deborah and I no longer have to leave Cuenca to find authentic Indian restaurants, sushi, artisanal breads and cheeses, international beers and spirits, and other gourmet-centric experiences that have always been of special interest to us. Admittedly an empty suitcase still accompanies us wherever our international travels take us, for bringing back desired items not yet available here. Still, as Cuenca becomes ever more cosmopolitan, the suitcase becomes ever smaller.
No longer can a body know all the other Gringos in town, not even close. In 2010, the waves of expats were just beginning to break on these shores. Back then everyone met up with everyone else at Zoe’s Restaurant on Friday nights, at Parque Calderon on Sunday mornings, and/or at California Kitchen any ol’ time. The number, diversity and interests of expats now in Cuenca are astounding, as any random daily reading of Gringo community bulletin boards reveals. Happily too, certified Wanderlust Gringos report that Cuenca is one of the easiest expat communities in the world to find new friends.
Quality and availability of excellent medical and dental care. The Bad News: Over the years Deborah and I have had dozens of interactions with a myriad of doctors, dentists, laboratories, imaging centers, emergency rooms, and pharmacies at Hospital Mount Sinai, Hotel Santa Inez, and several IESS locales. (These interactions encompassed annual checkups and other preventive procedures, occasional dramatic “make-it-stop-
hurting” events, and one confessed case of hypochondria on my part.) That is to say, we’ve had plenty of exposure to conventional medical and dental professionals and facilities in Cuenca. The Good News: The vast majority of the time we have been very pleased indeed with the quality of the care available here, and of course gratified by the relatively miniscule cost in Cuenca compared to the U.S.
Learning the local lingo not only makes life easier, but is enlightening and entertaining as well. A new language is difficult for many, impossible for some, but every word learned is repeatedly rewarding. The benefits go well beyond the usual admonishments (stressful uncertainties will decrease, feelings of isolation will diminish, and so on). With even rudimentary Spanish, chatting with taxi drivers, retail clerks, fellow gym rats, eager school kids, etc., can be a downright fun social activity – and confidence building to boot.
A Sidebar: Linguistic similarities and differences between Spanish and English can also be entertaining, even fascinating. For example, the birth of a baby is referred to as La Luz (The Light). Someone trying to cut in line might well be challenged with ¡Oye, Sapo! (Hey, Toad!, perhaps related to leap frog in English). Whereas in polite company someone might say Sugar instead of Sh*t, the Spanish equivalent is Miércoles (Wednesday, go figure) instead of Mierda.
The scale of the cultural scene. Look no further than Jeanne’s daily summary of El Mercurio. The list of cultural options is extensive, diverse, frequently international – and almost always free! Moreover, the number of cultural agencies, outreach programs, competitions, etc. reported by Jeanne is remarkable. No wonder that Cuenca has always been known as the cultural center of Ecuador. I for one feel a little guilty about not taking far more advantage of all the cultural opportunities Cuenca offers.
THE BAD (Sort of)
Note that per the Bad and the Ugly, I’m not really being critical, but merely pointing out unanticipated, pause-giving differences between life in Ecuador compared to the U.S. ¡Viva la Diferencia!
A large percentage of Gringo friends sooner or later depart. The exact number is unknown, but personal experience suggests a figure well over 50%. Many return to the U.S., some emigrate to another country (frequently Mexico), and more than a few “shuffle off this mortal coil” (to be expected, actuarially speaking). Whatever the nature of the departure, we miss our friends, especially those who resided in Cuenca for several years.
Legal requirements can change much more quickly in Ecuador than in the United States, and even be applied retroactively. Sometimes the results are highly positive, but other times not so much. For many Gringos the most disheartening recent example was the brand-new requirement of proof of health insurance, coupled with a substantial increase in IESS premiums. Similarly, a few years back many Gringos who had applied for Ecuadorian citizenship were disqualified in the home stretch when a new government minister ex post facto changed the number of days permanent residents could have been out of the country during their first three years of residency; the minister decided on a cap of 90 days, compared to the previous standard of approximately 360 days. To use a mixed metaphor, there was no grandfathering of applicants already in the pipeline who had been gone more than 90 days.
Another Sidebar: Never assume that the laws in Ecuador are more or less the same as in the U.S. Among the Big Deal surprises for uninformed Gringos is the constitutional requirement that, upon the death of a spouse, the title to much if not all of the deceased’s half of jointly owned real estate goes to the extended family of the deceased, not to the surviving spouse. On a related note, cremation destroys the requisite DNA evidence of who is entitled to a share of that real estate; accordingly, cremation is available only to those have an attorney prepare an appropriate affidavit “ahead of time”, or via an affidavit signed by three blood relatives (spouses excluded) “after the fact”. [I am not an attorney, certainly not giving legal advice, just reporting what I have heard — so be sure to consult with a qualified Ecuadorian attorney with any questions or concerns you might have.]
Miscellaneous other irritants (helpful for working on chill-out skills):
- The number, cost and reliability of flights to/from Quito and especially to/from Guayaquil have been highly volatile. (Don’t get me started on the period when CUE shut down with every rainstorm. Miércoles…)
- Traffic on Cuenca’s streets has increased exponentially because, among other reported reasons,the availability of automobile loans suddenly jumped a few years back.
- Obviously related is Tranvia Purgatory. (Happily other disruptive public works projects have been completed on time and under budget, such as the round-about where Avenida Ordonez Lasso meets Avenida de las Americas).
- Predicting the delivery dates of mail and packages is a bookie’s nightmare. And if Ecuador customs takes an interest in your incoming shipment, you might end up identifying with Sisyphus and his boulder.
As Plato was the first to say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” so you are in no way beholden to me to share the following perspectives.
Dogs as fashion statements. Do we really have to go there? Judging from their expressions, these two pooches appear to agree with me. (Okay, I’ll grant that occasionally a well turned-out dog can be cute.)
Culinary preparation techniques of various types of pigs. I’m not disparaging the result, having eaten and enjoyed my share of chancho and cuy prepared this way, but still. The blow torch part is an especially good time to avert one’s eyes.
Saving the worst for last –Ugly Americans. I am far from being the first to point out the unnecessarily rude to downright uncivilized comments offered frequently on Gringo community bulletin boards, and even in public settings. Such crass behavior is a major embarrassment to us all. Please stop pooping in the nest!
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For Deborah and me, the Good Surprises greatly outweigh the Bad and the Ugly Surprises.
That being said, we nonetheless value them all. Surprises are part of the fun of living here, contributing to the Expat Adventure. A lifestyle consisting only of “been-there-done-that” is not for us, and perhaps not for you either.
Gil and Deborah moved to Cuenca from California in October 2010. They love living here, vacationing internationally, and pursuing their principal Retirement Projects. Deborah’s RP is getting a “Ph.D.” in Sewing (all but dissertation). Gil’s RP is a website he created — www.CitiesBeautiful.org — which explores all that people find beautiful about 25 cities worldwide. (Photo: Shelley Reeves)